Sunday, May 2, 2010

Opera and Art, or Art in Opera

I very often find it difficult to discuss with operagoers because I always feel like bouncing off the wall of that perpetual desire to standardize the ways operas are staged, sung and performed. To feel secure by an established set of rules in everyday life is of course OK, but to expect art to follow similar (rigid) laws often entails a rejection of everything artistic about opera. 

 Ceiling at the Garnier opera in Paris, painted by Marc Chagal.

I understand that the artistic directors of big opera houses are acting more like CEO's,  but those that are good manage to get a good attendance while keeping a creativity and artistry in their theaters at decent level. Otherwise it is hard to make a substantial difference between a show given in an Opera House and seen on TV [although you can nitpick on technical details]. 

The theatrical part of an opera provides a number of options to satisfy this creative part [a clever choice of directors is often an implicit statement about the artistic policy of a given opera house], while the musicians do the rest to make theater live, to produce that moment in which the audience and performers share something unique. That's why I like, for example, La Traviata by Christine Schafer more than many of "perfectly" formated characterless voices. 

The other day I was reading this paragraph and thought how a big part of operatic stuff performed today is so not art.

In science and philosophy successive workers in the same field produce, if they work ordinarily well, an advance; and a retrograde movement always implies some breach of continuity. But in art, a school once established normally deteriorates as it goes on. It achieves perfection in its kind with a startling burst of energy, a gesture too quick for the historian's eye to follow. He can never explain such a movement or tell us how exactly it happened, But once it is achieved, there is the melancholy certainty of a decline. The grasped perfection does not educate and purify the taste of posterity; it debauches it.
 R.G.Collingwood, Speculum Mentis, Oxford 1924, p.82

Listen to these two Traviata's: Christine Schafer with Jonas Kaufmann in a superb Marthaler's production given a couple of years ago in Paris [yes, it's Édith Piaf inspired a production but it goes far beyond that]. Look at Christine's imperfections... and yet the impact she makes on you is such that her Violetta is looping in your head for weeks after the show... OK, Jonas is as his usual level of greatness...

Similar thing happened with Mireille Delunsch in Mussbach's production of La Traviata in Aix-en-Provence [it is Marilyn Monroe inspired production]. She came up with her arms that you can easily criticize, but after watching DVD you feel totally overwhelmed. Here is her Sempre Libera


  1. Cloud in TrousersMay 2, 2010 at 8:06 PM

    Interesting post Cake, but can you clarify what you mean when you say you "thought how a big part of operatic stuff performed today is so not art"? Is it against Zeffirelli? ;-)
    I (like you!)share a preferance for the bold and the beautiful: watching a short clip of Herheim's Parsifal in Bayreuth, with his dangerous associations shoking the material into new life... simply stunning. Will happily engage in any discussions you want!!

    One problem that I find suggests itself more than it should: the lack of consideration given to filming the production for DVD. I dislike the recent increase in the propensity to cut to a backstage camera during the action (blame the Met?); the steady-cam approach of Zurich's Tannhäuser I found unwatchable; clips of Py's interesting Tristan also seem to have a similarly too-intrusive camera. Like stage photography, it should become more held to scrutiny and referencd in reviews: Brian Large is only one man!!

  2. Hey CiT ;)

    What I'm saying is that many opera shows today are formated to provide an easy & intellectually lazy entertainment, to please the audience in a trivial way: the singers are judged mostly/only according to their faculty to hit a few high notes, good directors are considered those who produce the shows which do not "disturb" anyone [but entertain everyone]... That's in contradiction with what Collingwood calls artistic (c.f. quote above). You don't have to agree with Collingwood's "definition", but if you do so you will soon be lead to admit that opera in fact is not art.

    That's where the controversial directors come into equation and rescue opera from becoming the intellectually atrophic series of arias. Good singers/actors we have today also come into the mix to unveil the new/unexplored sides of old opera characters. It's normal that it displeases many, but I feel we should keep our minds open.

    Herheim's Parsifal --that you mention-- was disturbing because Stefan slightly twisted the libretto and constructs 2-3 extra stories on the basic plot [history of Germany & Bayreuth], to build a show that dug deep in the sens of Parsifal from our perspective.

    Bieito goes in a different direction and scratch our profound need for religion that transcends Christianity or any other "institutional" religion.

    Herheim's Lohengrin was even more disturbing (which is why many people didn't like). If you saw 2 productions of Lohengrin before that show, you'd EXPECT to see the same old plot just shaped in a slightly different way. Herheim modified a bit the relationships among protagonists [without abandoning the libretto!] and you felt completely ejected from your comfort zone as a spectator -- which is what the vast majority of people don't like. People want to listen and to see the same [or slightly refreshed] show over and over again (just like the children want to listen to the same fairy tales).

    You see, this may go on forever... :)

    As for the DVDs from Zurich they are ALL badly filmed: the shows you see in their theater are far better than on DVD.

  3. Cloud in TrousersMay 5, 2010 at 11:45 AM

    On reflection, I think Collingwood's definition works pretty well: atrophy is the antithesis of the creative act, so of course by definition it has to progress and develop. Those art works which are deemed 'great' necessarily not only lend themselves to re-interpretation but in fact demand it. This is especially true for the performance arts, simply due to the essential fact that a play by Shakespeare or an opera by Wagner only exists in its true form in performance.
    I think the controversial nature of contemporary directing is over-stated: the more people deem productions by Herheim, Bieto, Carsen, Kusej etc as 'versions' rather than artworks in their own right, the more the myth of 'traditional productions' gains weight. That audiences are encouraged by critics to view anything new with suspicion defies logic, as does the notion that Regie is somehow an act of 'disrespect' to the hermetically-sealed 'genius' of an author. And ultimately, the attitude of these so-called authorities propagates the most most destructive accusation of all: elitism.
    Let's ignore them. Let's bring friends to Achim Freyer's Onegin as their first opera experience and discuss what they think. Let's trust the sublime conversation between music, image and the human soul.

  4. Thanks for that excellent Cloud! :)